Photo taken in a church cemetery somewhere in Wales on our 2016 journey to the UK
Photo taken in a church cemetery somewhere in Wales on our 2016 journey to the UK
I recently revealed my struggle with anxiety and depression. For years it created a vortex where living any other way seemed out of place. It birthed a personal industry of what I called “sad-sack sadness.” Impenetrable. Unflappable. Ironclad. Too certain in its uncertainty to be particularly human.
It affected my persona, my personal choices – both good and bad, my relationships, the direction of my pursuits, my spirituality, and basically how I defined the world around me.
It turned me into a desperate person, desperately seeking answers to the desperation while simultaneously spurning those same answers. I thought it my job to make thinking about it my job.
Every time I “figured something out,” another layer yet more complex revealed itself. Of course, I saw that as a challenge and dove right back in. “I’ve got this,” I’d say to myself. “I can sort out these pieces, I’m smart.” Guess what? I am smart. I did sort them out, at least, in part. But, guess what again? I still felt desperate. Mentally unkempt. My spirit like a chaotic, post-coital bed-head, totally unprepared to meet the world.
I’ve taken a lot of poor, unsuspecting souls with me down these rabbit holes. In states of unrest I’d latch on, like a rottweiler on a kitten, to anyone even sniffing around my orbit. It destroyed friendships. Decimated trust. Damaged perceptions. Devalued my own “enough-ness.”
The sadness produced a fog in which the tiniest slivers of light were rejected as imposters. And when they did break through, the habits I’d formed while living blindly in fog rejected them. At times, I’d grudgingly accept suggestions, albeit on probation. Then, too often, I’d just to shoot the bastards.
It was a lonely road indeed.
Has a friend ever kicked you in the shin to help you forget your migraine? Right. Me, neither. The reason? Suddenly the migraine isn’t quite so bad when your shin is throbbing. Um, thanks I guess.
Your “friend” has unwittingly paid homage to an idea I’m exploring: fixing something isn’t always fixing something. She with a broken leg doesn’t just require a painkiller (although offering one is the polite thing to do). She requires surgery. He with a limp doesn’t generally heal so as to avoid it. He learns to walk successfully with a limp and think nothing of it.
Could this be what Paul meant when he couldn’t get God to do much about his “thorn in the flesh?” The best he got was a rather enigmatic response, “my grace is sufficient for you.” I guess that’s what I’m learning (?)
Being human is a complex business. Not only isn’t everything fixable but, sometimes, we do better to leave what brokenness we find and learn to limp. Part of my job is to determine where limping is best and where I’ve been limping already and not really needing to. Where are my limps just cause for self-pity or attention? Are those limpy bits merely a clever cover for what truly ails me?
What if – just consider the possibility that, for a moment at least, conceivably, all things considered, whether I see it or not, I might have more control over this than I’d imagined?
Gadzooks! You mean there’s hope for my hopelessness?
Nothing is as simple as it seems. One issue always feeds some other thing somewhere else. Nothing is completely isolated. When one thing hurts, everything else does.
My mental state sachets with my vanity (secretly in love with my diet), which in turn is carrying on an affair with my sleep patterns, which is on record as screwing with my coffee intake who’s been seen skulking about the perimeter of my spiritual practice.
Well, you get the idea.
Isn’t it strange how interconnected are our issues? Our demons are all inbred. One l’il beast seems always to be a different one’s aunt, sister, and best friend’s boy-friend all at once. We are not as neatly compartmentalized as we’d like to believe.
But, this much I know. Wherever possible, I’m committed to smile when frowning makes more sense. I’m trying to sell my wholesale business in melancholy in favour of a tiny house of healthy practices that make life more livable for me and those around me (even when it feels a little cramped).
By choosing behaviours, little things I can do, I’m learning (despite all evidence to the contrary) to live contentedly. Leaning a bit more each day into the enough-ness of God in me, I see the benefits of my own weakness. I’m discovering light underneath the dark, up tucked inside the down, good hiding in the bad. Slowly (glacially to be honest), I am trading in the trail of tears.
The return? The fail of fears. And, even though I suck at it, isn’t it worth the effort, if only to sleep at night satisfied that I haven’t lost any friends today?
Maybe I even gained a few?
In their better moments, I dare say many folks would likely extend a more welcoming hand to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. But our mob mentality, especially prevalent in the institutional church, often disallows as much. The reasons for this are often touted as theological. However, I’d venture a guess that it is often much more likely to be a projection of misdirected self-loathing and fear at the easiest target du jour. Further, it is given credibility through bad, or at least popular, biblical hermeneutics (the paradigm and practices by which we understand something). Then, all is rubber-stamped by those who prescribe and hallow that same fear.
Many of the most vocal critics of alternate sexualities claim to know a gay person. I’d like to suggest that, given their predisposition toward raised-brow shock or squinty-eyed judgement of the same, this is highly unlikely. Sadly, the high degree of verbal and/or physical violence against these folks by such critics, renders them not particularly forthcoming with personal details that merely paint targets on their chests.
Therefore, the self-proclaimed prophets of righteousness toddle off into the fray, cherry-picked, ill-understood bible verses in hand, and “take a stand for Jesus.” All this while their gay “friends” are sidelined from the very same faith that calls them as does their accusers.
I’ll stop there because, when in doubt, ask someone who’s truly been there to better explain. Fellow Jesus-follower and blogger, Laura Jean Truman, recently posted this to her blog. The title alone gave me pause to consider.
Read, pray, love. Then, let’s talk…
Photo credit: me (thank you iPhone!)
Today, it occurs to me how blessed, perhaps even entitled, I am. Sitting here, in this idyllic environment, relatively free of care, well fed and clothed, in a little chapel associated with a Priory, having made my way here with someone else’s money in a new van paid for with our own money (well, theoretically), all to return – freely, and without fear of reprisal – to a local church that hired me and pays my wages.
Who gets to do such things other than the rich, and free? The power-brokers? Those who write the headlines and history books? These things become much clearer in the light of God whose heart beats wildly for the little ones. They also become easier to recall to one’s mind. To remember these basic things in order to bring proper perspective and sufficient context to my time here is now my task.
Silence. Solitude. Journalling. Reading. Prayer and discernment. Although, these are presently my experience, to a lesser degree I anticipate this to be the case upon my return. It has been good. Very, very good. It has allowed me to slow down, attend the needs of my soul, and to avail myself of the riches of the Lover of my Soul.
As a result however, the greatest takeaway from my time here is this: I do best when staying actively involved in the vicissitudes of daily living, embodying truth. Not just thinking it. I must seek a deep, inner life as I’ve been doing, but one that leads to full engagement. I am not a person who is going to readily make the biggest discoveries from behind monastery walls. Start there? Absolutely. But the field of dreams for me will always be on the field, not in the dreams. It’s hands and feet and kinetic energy I require to keep my inner kingdom alive and growing.
Hence, it is now, as they say, “down to brass tacks.” While in the midst of discerning the movement of God within, weighing consolation with desolation in a balance (thank you Ignatius), this philosopher-poet, Enneagram 4 needs to get real, practical. Perhaps, while doing so, God can more easily steer this spiritual ship to new and expansive waters. The larger call and vocation upon my life will emerge more clearly in the minutiae of the face to face reparté of those who need what I’ve discovered here. It must be in goal-setting and the hazards of life-on-the-ground, where we all must live every day.
Gracious God of small things, help me see what I need to see, so I might become eyes to the blind, voice to the voiceless, and a support to the weary. Speak Lord, for your servant is listening…
French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said: ““If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks…rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Anna is on her death bed. She has battled Alzheimer’s disease for almost 10 years. She hasn’t recognized her family for quite some time and this reality has left her terrified, confused. She is often angry. She believes a host of people are trying to trick her. Every unknown day arises again the next with all the same complexity and uncertainty. As her caregiver assists her in preparing for sleep, she hears Anna sing just outside her door: “then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art…”
She has forgotten every sermon she ever heard.
Every bible verse she ever memorized.
Every note she ever took in every bible study.
Every family member’s name.
But she remembers all the verses, word for word, of this great hymn. Why?
A young man in his late twenties battles with a choice. In his circle of friends, he has made the acquaintance of several lovely young women. He dates regularly. These women are delightful, intelligent, captivating. He looks forward to a time when home and family give him better reason to traipse to and from a busy downtown office day after day. A better life picture.
Erin is a Princeton post-doc student. Her dirty blond hair, cheerful demeanour, razor-sharp mind, and engaging repartée have been his regular experience of her. He’s reminded regularly by family and friends just how perfect she is for him. All the “pieces” fit together in a game too big to lose.
Brynne is girl-next-door pretty. Slightly chunky, but still shapely, and full of energy with a quick wit and uproarious sense of humour. Although not as book smart, she is equally intelligent. She is loud, often abrasive but never mean-spirited. She is funny, usually in embarrassingly public ways; opinionated, inadvertently pitting people against one another. She is clumsy and goofy and forgetful and messy and dangerous to his professional reputation.
And he can’t stop thinking about her.
What is happening here? All the facts line up in such a way as to present Erin as the obvious choice for a long-term relationship. Everything “fits.” She fills well the checklist on any relationship course he’s ever taken. Against his better judgment and flying in the face of the facts, Brynne rises to his mind continually. Something about her haunts him, chases him, wants him.
In our current church culture, we usually pose as the primary question of Christian discipleship “what do you believe?” And, pursuant to that question is the presupposition that you need all the facts before you can make an informed decision. I’d like to suggest however that an even more fundamental question is “what do you want?”
James K. A. Smith in his book “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” suggests that we are what we want. “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person…”
What we often generate in our churches is a fill-in-the-blanks doctrinal checklist that amounts to a legal transaction. It is more Descartian: “I think, therefore I am,” than biblical.
Our young man in question will of course do well to know his own heart to navigate whatever his future relationships hold. But in his inexplicable desire for Brynne over Erin, despite appearances to the contrary, we find a key to how God seeks to relate to us.
“Discipleship [then] is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” Even the demons believe and shudder. Knowing facts is easy. Retooling the human heart and its longings is not. But, it is our truest path. That is my call: to work in the Spirit’s process of forming a kingdom people by means of the gathered community in worship.
St. Augustine is quoted as saying, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Our discipleship is less about information than it is transformation.
We don’t instruct people deeper into kingdom life. We inspire them. The heart knows what it loves and that is what forms the foundation of our actions and our habits. Our journey is one of inspiring and shaping our heart’s deepest desires, bending them ever more toward Christ and his kingdom.
Our journey is to discover the beauty and holy peril, oddly comforting, of being adrift with God on the vastness of life’s open sea.
Lord, Saint Augustine once said we’re created by God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Sometimes the way to you can seem cloudy, or grown over with thistles and weeds. We thank you for our longings. We love because you first loved us. You’ve built it into our DNA. Help us not to be afraid of what most deeply moves us, even if that isn’t lofty or what we typically think of as holy. Instead, grab hold of our hearts and shape them, Lord. Form in us a new and undeniable passion for life with God and others. And that, Lord, will be our truest joy. Amen.
Last month we began a conversation; a tête à tête if you will about our relationship to the Bible – something we may not know as well as we think we do. And, because so much is riding on our relationship to this library of writings, it behooves us to dig as deeply as we can.
With the help of Glenn Paauw’s masterful book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well, I have sought to make the case that, in seeking to make the Bible “approachable” we have instead neutered it, making it less transformational. The Scriptures call us to faith, not certainty. Modernity has sought to erase the unpredictability of faith with scientific verifiability. “The bare text is difficult to control. The modernist turn in culture led the keepers of the Bible to transform it into something precise, punctual, calculable, standard, bureaucratic, rigid, invariant, finely coordinated, and routine…This is a Bible that needs to be saved” (p. 37).
We have all heard the adage that “less is more.” It holds true in many areas of life. For example, my wife tells me that much of her editing process involves carving away the literary dross from her manuscript in order to leave the best kernels of story that will keep the reader engaged. She wrote her book in under a year, but has spent over three more in the arduous task of proofing, hacking, chopping, and honing. Michelangelo stated that his masterpiece sculpture of David was “discovered” by simply chipping away all that was not David. It has been scientifically proven that the clutter of too many road signs and instructions cause drivers to disengage, the very thing such signs are designed to avoid.
Less is more. With the many additions and “improvements” to the Bible, aimed at helping us pay attention, we have ostensibly removed its beautiful “surface simplicity that [could] open up for us the inherent and immensely interesting good complexity that lies deep within…The Elegant Bible will reflect the wisdom that form and content always belong together in God’s good creation. Form is part of the content of things” (p. 39).
We must always begin with the questions, what is the Bible and how can we honor what that is? Paauw suggests that we are badly in need of an “extreme Bible makeover” wherein we can undo its fractured format that only leads to fractured reading and commensurately fractured lives. Part of that process will be to learn how to adopt the practice of referencing passages by context and content rather than by isolated chapters and verses.
As is apparent in the rather unique Covenant Community Bible Experience in which our fellowship is presently engaging, Paauw advocates for a Bible less encumbered by the artificiality that has been foist upon it by means of chapter and verse numbers that pull us out of a narrative and broad reading of its contents; section headings that are ultimately interpretive by nature; page layouts which hide from us the diversity of literary forms employed in our original manuscripts; and, particularly, study Bibles that can actually mitigate against the deep, transformative, non-agenda-driven reading that can best draw us into the dangerous place of spiritual formation rather than mere information.
We need to view the Bible more as poetry, which demands exactitude of form as much as content. What a poem “looks like” is intended to speak as loudly as the words themselves. Form and content alike form our understanding of a thing. We have inherited more of a cultural creation than the Bible that was originally intended.
Says Paauw, “to save the Bible from ourselves, we must begin to trust once again its ancient ways of saying things…The path to restoring our Bible begins with chipping away at everything that doesn’t belong there” (p. 50). Our love for God demands no less than an equal love of the Scriptures as they were first delivered.
Those with ears to hear, let them hear…
On August 28th, 2008, I began a journey 20 years in the making – I started my Master’s degree. What am I studying? I’m glad you asked. I am taking a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. It is an online degree through Spring Arbor University in Michigan. Responses I’ve received have ranged from mild curiosity to deep fascination to turned up noses! So, why that and why now? Again, thanks for asking.
A favorite Rife family rock band, U2, wrote a chart topping song in the 80’s called, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Since Bono, their lead singer, was widely known to be a Christian, they received much bad press from the church for not speaking in more definitive terms about their experience of faith. However, it was something deeper that he was singing about. Like Bono of U2, ever since I can remember I’ve had a similar unfulfilled longing. You know that gnawing ache inside when you are standing in front of the refrigerator eyeing all the possible ways to deal with it? You can’t sit still. You’re bored but don’t know why. Nothing you do makes any difference. Augustine called it a restlessness. Ah, I knew you were going to ask that…yes, I do know and love Jesus Christ and his loving presence is everything to me. Then, why this “unfulfilled longing”? Let me briefly try to explain and in so doing describe why I’m studying this stuff.
I love the Church. But it makes me sad as well. I believe that we have abdicated our role as “God’s skin in the world” (see “The Holy Longing” by Ronald Rolheiser). Our mad dash toward relevance has squeezed out significance. Our insistence on just the right doctrine has left us with all the wrong lives. We’ve traded in righteousness for “rightness”. We have exchanged transformed lives for informed heads. Often, what passes for faith is a “notebook Christianity” where, with pen and paper, we learn God rather than love and live God. We study and memorize Scripture trying to control and tame God rather than being read by Scripture, thus being brought under its control. We have taken our risen, ever-living Savior and boiled him down to an idea or a worldview. We have a theology divorced from spirituality.
Says Dallas Willard, “we live from our heart.” Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century Congregationalist pastor and theologian spoke much of “religious affections” which provide us with a “spring of action.” Willard calls the lack of real spiritual formation in the Western church “the Great Omission.. THAT is what I am studying.
I love Jesus Christ. I love the church. I love the rich and varied tapestry of Christian history and I love classic Christian spirituality. I have a longing to help all of us who are victimized by a materialistic, consumer society but who hunger after deeper realities to find wholeness and the re-integration of our fragmented lives. My own life mission is “to draw others to God through my life and work which strive to meaningfully communicate God’s beauty and truth.” Through worship, spiritual disciplines, liturgy and the arts my goal is to become the very Jesus we sing about and help others do the same.
Writer and theologian M. Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.. May God lead us to discover all the riches of Christ in order that we are conformed to God’s image for the sake of others. THAT is what I long for.
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